'We enjoy suffering': How Atlético Madrid inspired Ottawa's defensive philosophy
There’s a reason why the old adage 'defence wins championships' is so popular in sports culture.
When it comes down to those big moments, it's the team who doesn't concede goals who is guaranteed not to lose.
Defending might not always be the most enjoyable task, as it requires a lot of hard work, sacrifice and desire – but at the end of the day, those who do it well tend to find success ... eventually.
Just ask Atlético Ottawa, who on Sunday will look to put a bow on their table-topping 2022 Canadian Premier League regular season with a post-season North Star Shield of their own, cementing a worst-to-first story that began when they finished dead last in 2021.
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While new attacking pieces like Ollie Bassett and Ballou Tabla earned recognition at the 2022 CPL Awards on Friday night, make no mistake – it is Ottawa's commitment to defending that saw them shave off 18 goals conceded from their previous year's tally. And, as Pacific FC found out in their playoff semi-finals loss, it was this same stingy backline that served as the backbone of Ottawa's tough identity as they now host a final to cap off a season to remember in the capital.
"There’s no secret - it's about commitment," Ottawa goalkeeper Nathan Ingham explained to OneSoccer this week. "It's having 11 players buy into the idea that our coach Carlos González shared with us at the beginning of the year; to enjoy defending and to enjoy suffering. This group does that."
Sound familiar? You'd be right in seeing shades of red-and-white from across the pond in Ottawa.
This is all out of the Atlético Madrid playbook, after all.
How Ottawa took a page out of Atlético Madrid's book
A unified identity, from parent club to each of its global offspring – it's the vision that Atlético Madrid had when the club invested into Canadian soccer back in 2020.
Just as Madrid has built a strong reputation as a force in European soccer due to their strong defensive identity and a desire to enjoy defending, Ottawa does well to channel that same desire and hunger.
While most teams might be content with a big tackle, or a good clearance, for Ottawa, a successful clearance is applauded on the touchline with the same emphasis as scoring a goal.
"I mean, you can't ignore it," Ingham said of the comparisons to their parent club. "They're definitely a part of us and we're definitely a bit different from them, too – but we both have that culture of defending. We celebrate big plays on both sides of the pitch. That's important. One thing that both of us have is a lot of heart."
When the going gets tough – hence, the suffering – Ottawa is never one to shy away, as Ingham affirms. In fact, they relish that pain.
"When we're talking about suffering, it's about dealing with hard moments in games, and then ultimately getting a result at the end of it," defender Maxim Tissot offered.
"It's all about embracing something that our whole careers we were taught to fear," Ingham explained.
"Take the last 5-to-10 minutes of a game where you're hanging on by a goal. It happens at every level from youth to pro. There are two ways to go about it: You can be scared, and wait for something bad to happen, or you can embrace it and be comfortable with the guys beside you, and go out and do your job knowing that they're gonna do their job, too.
"Yes, it’s high-pressure, right? You're near your own goal, and any mistake can lead to a goal-scoring opportunity, so yeah, when you make a big play, enjoy it. Celebrate it. It's a high-pressure play that you needed to be on point for ... and you were."
“The suffering is for everyone, not just for the defenders.”
Finding a system that works
While Ottawa's commitment to their system has allowed them success, credit must be given to its architect – head coach Carlos González.
Hired at the beginning of this year to replace the outgoing Miguel Mista, González had a tall task ahead of him, as he had to turn around a last-place team while dealing with over a dozen new arrivals.
Despite that, he didn't balk at the task. Instead, he went to tweaking his ideas in order to build a platform for his players to buy into, while giving them space to grow, too.
"He's very tactically astute," Ingham said of his coach. "Plus, he's still young and learning as well, but he's always trying to soak up as much information as possible to then give to us to be successful."
So, let's break it all down, shall we?
After Ottawa ran with a free-wheeling 4-2-3-1 to begin 2021 – which morphed into a 5-4-1 at the end of the year – González shifted to a very simple but fluid 4-4-2 this year.
The instructions are simple: Off the ball, players are to stay in a rigid 4-4-2 shape, with two lines of four expected to keep things tight between each other and the other line of four. From there, the two up top have a little bit more freedom, although their job is to shade opponents towards a certain side before also dropping to just in front of the midfield pack.
Offensively, Ottawa then shifts to a back three, with Miguel Acosta typically going from right back to right centre-back alongside central centre-back Diego Espejo, while right midfielder Carl Haworth turns into a right wing-back, and left-back Maxim Tissot turns into a left wing-back, giving them the ability to have numerical superiority when building out of defence.
Using those as the base philosophies, the team then tweaked things slightly defensively based on their opponents, while offering their players the freedom to be creative when they did work the ball into the final third.
"There's so much more to our game than just defending," Tissot explained. "Our defending is a narrative that's used, but I'd like to think that we do a lot more than that, too."
That's true, as Ottawa went on to improve on 30 goals to 36 goals this year, good for third overall in the league.
Enjoying the last chance to suffer
All this talk of defending and suffering and systems and formations means little without the end product.
If Ottawa is to cap off their excellent regular season with a finals triumph over Forge FC on Sunday, they'll need more than a few tried-and-true ideas; the two-time champions are hungry for vengeance, fuelled by the pain of losing in 2021.
They're no pushovers, either, only finishing two points behind first place while scoring a league-leading 47 goals and conceding a league-low 25, all despite dealing with key injuries and absences all year long.
Make no mistake – Forge remains a potent threat on either side of the ball.
Because of that, Ottawa is going to have to be at their best if they're to stop Forge from winning their third North Star Shield in four years. As they saw in the regular season, they can hang with Forge when they're on their game, winning once and drawing two of their four total encounters in the 2022 regular season.
But, should they waver, things can go south quickly, as Forge proved in a 4-0 drubbing of Ottawa back in July.
Especially given that Forge is used to playing in these sorts of big games while Ottawa is still very new to this, not getting overwhelmed by the occasion will be crucial.
And the good news is that the City of Ottawa is up for this. A crowd of at least 12,500 is expected for this Sunday's final. A strong base of support will help overcome any jitters, but after that? It's back to their suffering, with one last game left to endure.
"We've been gearing up for this with the same mentality for the last eight to nine months," Ingham said. "So the only thing that changes on Sunday are the things surrounding the game. The game itself doesn't change. We're approaching it the same way we always do. We have our tactics in place for Forge, our mentality is good, and we're ready."
Added Tissot: "I think we need to go into this as if we have nothing to lose. We've been great so far, but finals can get overwhelming. You tend to play on the cautious side for most of it. I'd like to see us go for it and try to win.
"We have one more game at home, one final – I don't think we've put too much pressure on ourselves. We go out and play freely once again."